Airto Moreira: Bucking Tradition Every Step Of The Way

In everything that has been written about the development of jazz fusion, many of the accolades have gone to the extraordinary talents that passed through the Miles Davis groups of the late ’60s and early ’70s. The legendary trumpeter began to experiment with elements of funk, rock and Latin music with players who were primarily experienced in jazz. At that time, the Latin influence in American jazz came mainly from Afro-Cuban artists and soft Brazilian sounds. Davis was looking for something wilder in the Latin sound when he discovered Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira, who had come to America to persuade his future wife, Brazilian vocalist Flora Purim, to return with him to Brazil. Instead, the lovebirds ended up in New York, and together helped reshape American jazz.

Moreira began playing drum set by accident at age 14, when he and his family attended a local dance hall concert. The youngster frequently sat in on percussion when he went to shows, but one night the bandleader asked Moreira if he could play drum set, because the regular drummer was late. Moreira replied that he had never played, but had watched the drummer for quite some time and would give it a try. “I played the three main rhythms that they played at carnival time in Brazil,” he says. “I ended up playing the whole night because the drummer never showed up and that’s how I learned to play drum set. From that point on I played drum set and percussion and also sang.”

At age 16 he moved to São Paulo and began his career as a musician. It was there that he started to incorporate percussion into his drum set while working with the experimental Latin jazz ensemble Quarteto Novo. “We had several multi-instrumentalists in Quarteto Novo, so we all had to switch to different instruments depending on what type of music we were playing,” he says. “When the music got heavier and louder I would switch from percussion to drum set. At one point, vocalist Geraldo Vandre suggested that I try to play both percussion and drum set together because we needed certain sounds from both. So I began to think of percussion and drum set as one. It wasn’t really my idea, it happened more out of necessity. I would play a pair of shakers with my hands and then coordinate the basic rhythm with my feet. It was more a matter of creating independence with my hands and feet while I was singing rather than learning technique as a player.”

Moreira began listening to jazz music, starting with big band sounds. But it wasn’t until he heard the music of John Coltrane that he felt an affinity with the style. “When I first heard Coltrane’s music I didn’t understand it,” Moreira recalls. “But the more I listened, the more I understood and the more I liked it.”

At that time, Moreira had just met Purim and fell in love with her. “I remember going to her apartment in São Paulo and I was really trying to get her to like me,” he explains. “Flora played me a Miles Davis record with Gil Evans arrangements. It was so beautiful. That was the first time that jazz music really moved me deeply and I began to cry. Being a young Brazilian man, it was not considered the macho thing to cry. I said to Flora, ’I’m sorry but I don’t know why I’m crying. This music is taking over my emotions and it is so beautiful.’”

Bitten by the jazz bug, Moreira became one of the jazz drummers in São Paulo, and played at the only jazz club in town. “I never really tried to copy any of the jazz drummers of that time,” says Moreira. “I just listened to the music and tried to get the feel of what the drums were doing.”

Eventually Purim moved to Los Angeles to pursue her singing career with South African artist Miriam Makeba. It wasn’t long before Moreira followed Purim to America. After two or three months in Los Angeles they both made their way to New York. “I had a hard time finding work in New York because I couldn’t speak English yet,” he says. “I actually learned how to speak English by watching Sesame Street on television. I used to take a bus up to Harlem and check out the nightclubs and meet musicians. There were very few Brazilians in New York at that time and Brazilian music was not very popular. I tried to get into the Latin scene but I didn’t fit in because I didn’t know the Latin rhythms very well. In Brazilian music you just fit in and play without having very specific beats that you have to play. At that time, Brazilian music was more like a jam session. In uptown New York there were a few Latin clubs that I tried to get into and play, but there was no way they were going to let me play. I couldn’t even shake a shaker with them because they had specific beats that called for specific parts.”

Moreira struggled in New York to fit in and eventually got a gig playing for food at a restaurant called Lost & Found, where Purim and other jazz musicians played. To cut down on the volume, the club owners didn’t allow drum sets in the club, so Moreira played percussion with most of the artists. He soon met some real jazz players, including Cedar Walton and Billy Cobham. Moreira remembers, “Cobham was working at a club down the street with Lionel Hampton, and we hung out a little. He asked me to show him some Brazilian grooves and when I finally heard him play I thought, ’Wow, this guy’s a monster.’”


Although Moreira finally was meeting some great musicians, he still wasn’t making any money. Purim was rooming with a friend and Moreira had no place to sleep, so bassist Walter Booker and his wife took him in and let him sleep on the floor. “We were more accepted in the jazz world than we were in the Latin world,” says Moreira. “I met Cannonball Adderly and Thelonious Monk and we would just hang out and jam. Thelonious used to love to sit and listen to Flora play acoustic guitar and sing. At that time we would call each other and say, ’Hey, you want to come over to my loft and jam?’ And everybody would get together and play all night for free.”

Things really took off when Moreira began working with trumpeter Lee Morgan, as well as saxophonist Paul Desmond and keyboardist Joe Zawinul. He had finally arrived on the jazz scene, playing percussion and drums, but still had a lot to learn about jazz.

“I got a call from Wayne Shorter to record an album with him called Super Nova,” he says. “I heard that Jack DeJohnette was going to be playing drums on the session, and I was very excited because Jack is my favorite drummer. Wayne wanted me to play percussion and drums along with Jack. It was supposed to be a really free kind of thing. I got to the studio early and when I walked in there was a guy practicing drums and he was playing some incredible stuff. The producer was Phil Ramone and I asked him if that was Jack DeJohnette playing drums. He said ’No, that’s Chick Corea.’ I said, ’Oh my God, I’m going home!’ I left the studio and started walking down the street, but Flora had come with me and she said, ’You have to go back and play.’ So I went back and did the session and it ended up being an incredible session with some beautiful music. That is when I first met Chick Corea.”

Moreira’s phone began ringing off the hook for sessions and gigs, particularly for percussion. At that time, many of his Brazilian percussion instruments had rarely been heard in American music. His main instruments included berimbau, which has a bow built onto a gourd, and also the cuica, a small drum with a stick inside the shell that is rubbed with the hand or a cloth. Along with bird calls, rattles and shakers, his handmade percussion instruments gave Moreira an individual sound that began to attract more artists. His impact on the music was so strong that Downbeat magazine added a category for percussion to its Readers and Critics Poll, which he has won more than 20 times since 1973. He has also won Best Percussionist awards from every major jazz and drum magazine around the world.

One day trumpeter Lee Morgan came to visit Moreira. As he walked into Moreira’s apartment, the phone rang. Moreira picked it up, listened for a second, laughed and hung up. When Morgan asked who had called, Moreira said that it was a guy playing a joke on him, claiming to be Miles Davis’s manager and wanted him to do a session with Davis the following day. When the phone rang again, Morgan answered. Sure enough, it was Davis’s manager asking if Moreira could do a session with Davis. Moreira played on several sessions for the jazz legend, who eventually asked the percussionist to join his band.

“Miles taught me a lot about playing,” Moreira recalls, “When I first played with him I wasn’t sure what to play because the music was very different and complex. Miles said, ’Don’t bang – just listen and play.’” Davis taught Moreira to be patient, listen with respect for the other players and not worry about playing faster or louder than everyone else. Moreira went on to record with Davis on some of his most influential recordings, including Bitches Brew, Live Evil, Live at the Fillmore and On The Corner.

During his years with Davis, Moreira forged many musical relationships that would pay dividends. Two of his most notable colleagues were keyboardists Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, who both enlisted Moreira on the debut releases for two of the greatest electric jazz fusion groups of all time. Moreira recorded the first Weather Report release with Zawinul, but didn’t tour with the band because of his commitment to Davis. But after Moreira finally left Davis’s band, he was asked to join Corea’s newly formed Return to Forever, which also included Purim.


His performance on the classic Return to Forever album Light As A Feather was a turning point in Moreira’s career, establishing him as a drum set player. The influence that Moreira and Purim had on the Corea’s music at that time was immense and evident on the timeless track “Spain.” Moreira recalls, “When we were recording Light as a Feather, it was the first time I really felt locked in as a drummer playing jazz. I finally felt that I had become a complete drummer.” When Corea decided to take Return to Forever in a different musical direction, Moreira and Purim went on to form their own group, Fingers, returning to their Brazilian roots.

While he has accompanied many legendary players, Moreira has also worked alongside some of the greatest percussionists on the planet – most notably with the 1991 Grammy-winning project Planet Drum, which included Babatunde Olatunji, Zakir Hussain, T. H. Vinayakram, Giovanni Hidalgo and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. Moreira found that the common thread shared by these percussionists was their positive energy, lack of ego and a willingness to share.

During the ’90, Moreira and Purim formed another Brazilian group with guitarist José Neto called Fourth World and Moreira released several solo recordings, including his 1977 release, I’m Fine, How Are You? The track “Celebration Suite” from that album proved quite profitable, as it has been remixed and become a number one dance track in over 26 countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Moreira has also performed with the Boston Pops Orchestra and on MTV Unplugged with Smashing Pumpkins.

“These guys are the musicians of today’s music and beyond,” he says. “It’s amazing how they can listen to a short piece of music and loop it with other samples to create exciting dance music. They do what I can’t do with this new technology. My daughter and her husband are into this new technology and I have learned a lot from them. I still prefer first-generation sounds, like when you clap your hands or strike an instrument. Once you record a sound, it has already become second generation.”

Nonetheless, his upcoming album, Homeless, will feature some new technologies. Homeless includes a mix of machines and real players (including Moreira’s son-in-law, Krishna Booker, who is, incidentally, the son of Walter Booker). Moreira describes his new direction as “tribal music – a combination of many new styles including a little drum ’n’ bass, hip-hop and what they now call trip-hop,” he explains. “I enjoy working with the new technology and I feel that this is actually my best recording ever. I don’t think I’ve gotten off the path at all with this new style of recording. Everything in this world comes from nature. Even the most advanced microchip for the new computers would not exist without nature. It is the same with sounds. There will always be a place for real musicians creating real sounds, but you must also be open to the new technology as well.”

Perhaps Moreira’s open-minded approach isn’t so surprising when you consider that his father, José Rosa Moreira, was a spiritual healer in Brazil, who influenced his son’s belief that music helps create a deeper spiritual connection with the universe. “Music transcends the material world,” Moreira says. “When a musician plays in harmony with himself and others, without thinking about what he’s playing, then he is communicating on a higher level. When you create this type of energy, that energy is released into the universe and it is felt by others. The music that I enjoy playing projects a positive energy into the universe, especially in a live situation. When the music can lift a person into this higher place, they feel better and they wish they could feel this way all the time. This feeling brings people together and it brings us, as human beings, closer to the purpose of why we were put here on this planet, and that is to love one another. It’s the same way that our spiritual masters have tried to enlighten the people of the world. As musicians, we have the same power to help others. But this is something that musicians must take the time to figure out for themselves. The brotherhood of the world is much more important than fighting and hating each other for greed and money.”